A better bitter battler

I hate adages that don’t make sense. Like that one about which came first, the chicken or the egg. (That does count as an adage, doesn’t it?) It’s perfectly clear that the egg came first. It was laid by something that wasn’t quite a chicken, which had been bred to something else that wasn’t quite a chicken. But that very first chicken had to come out of an egg. Q.E.D.

And what’s with the one about life handing you lemons? Lemons are excellent and, last I checked, they were three for a dollar at Stop & Shop. If life hands you enough, you never have to work again.

If life hands you bitter collard greens, however, you’re screwed.

Life, you may already have surmised, has handed me bitter collard greens, and I am hereby going to attempt to make lemonade. Oh, wait – that sounds terrible.

You know what I mean.

The row of collard greens I planted earlier this year is the picture of health. As everything else in the garden died off, the collards grew and thrived. The biggest one has a stem as big as my forearm. It was with some pride that I sautéed, simmered, and creamed a pot of them for my Thanksgiving table.

One word: blech.

Now, collards are supposed to be a little bit bitter. They are a cruciferous vegetable, and all cruciferous vegetables have bitter-tasting compounds like glucosinolates and isothiocyanates which, on the upside, are very good for you. The downside is that they are bitter.

All I can say is that my collards must be very, very good for you. I have been eating collard greens all my life – including those which I grew myself – and I have never encountered this level of mouth-puckering phytonutrients.

The net of this is that my collards make a lousy side dish. But they make for an excellent science experiment.

The internet is rife with suggestions for de-bittering collard greens. Cook them with bacon. Boil them in salted water. Add baking soda. Cook for a long time. Cook for a short time. What all these strategies seem to have in common is absolutely no scientific justification, at least not that I can find.

There’s only one thing for it, and that’s to try the various methods and see what works. So, if you’ve got a method, toss it into the ring. If you’ve got the science to go with it, even better. I’ll do the Great Collard Cook-Off next week, and hope to find the definitive de-bitterer (or that there isn’t one).

Yes, folks, it’s Starving off the Land, making history one dorky idea at a time.

16 people are having a conversation about “A better bitter battler

  1. I usually use the blanching method for greens I find bitter. Toss ’em into boiling water for a minute or two, then shock in cold water before continuing with the recipe. Unfortunately, some nutrients are certainly leaching into the blanching water along with (hopefully) some of the bitterness.

    Is it possible that your collards bolted? I am not much of a gardener myself, but my experience with lettuces and greens seems to be that the newer the plant, the sweeter it is. As it ages, it gets more bitter.

  2. Try it with smoked raccoon… Seriously cooks use sweet and/or tangy to counter bitterness so mt suggestion would be to sauté it with onion and garlic then dress with a balsamic vinaigrette. And if science and culinary skill can’t coax the bitterness out I sure your chickens would love a little green added to their diets.

  3. I second the chicken idea. When our greens are no good, they go straight to the chickens. I figure we get at least some of greeny nutrition in the eggs.
    But I’ll follow to see if any good ideas come up here!

  4. Have you had frost on the Cape yet? I’ve never grown collards, but I know frost makes kale milder and more palatable.

  5. Maria — The blanching method is definitely on my list. And the collards haven’t bolted — not only that, but, as .. .

    Teresa points out, they’re supposed to get better with frost (which we’ve had, Teresa, and is another reason I was so disappointed with my collards).

    Rick, I think the whole smoked raccoon pairing is genius. And I would definitely go with your sweet/tangy suggestion. First, though, I’d like to see if I can cut down on the bitterness that the sweet/tangy is supposed to balance out.

    Cat – Bacon and collards are like peanut butter and jelly. I’m in.

    Janna — My chickens love them (I give them some of the most insect-damaged leaves). But my preference is that they become human food directly, rather than through egg production. Still, it’s definitely Plan B.

  6. Blanching is good.

    Picking when younger is another.

    Using them in smaller doses is another. You don’t have to cook a big pot of just collards (with whatever smoky side point you choose), you can use them in small portions in soups and stews where they won’t be the focus, they will be an accent. (small pieces are best)

    BTW… I like to cook beans with smoked paprika and smoked chipotle and I tell my southern friends that I used really thin bacon, but it’s in there. It’s smokey and they usually believe me. Ha! Perfect.

  7. Starving off the Land: Making history one dorky idea at a time.

    Bwahahahahah! is all I can say to that.

    I lived in NC and ate my fair share of collard greens but few were bitter. I have a theory that it’s more of a weather thing than a recipe thing.

    This is purely observational from growing year round vegetables outdoors in northern climates – varieties of greens (chard, kale, lettuce) which are bred to withstand unprotected growing conditions in cold climates sacrifice taste for survival. I sowed a variety of lettuce called ‘Arctic King’ which is cropping now and it manages to be both bitter and tasteless.

    I wonder if there is a plant antifreeze in these cold weather cultivars, and that’s where the bitterness originates. If so, you’d need to identify the chemical, and a method for neutralising it in before or during cooking.

    A rule of thumb: if the cultivar has the words ‘Icy’ or ‘Arctic’ in the title, be prepared for a successful crop of something to mix with bacon and cheese. Incidentally there is also a rule for livestock: if a breed has the word ‘Mountain’ in its name, it will jump any fence you build, and you will never see it again.

    • @Jen,

      My understanding is that sugar is plant’s antifreeze. It prevents actual freezing, and plants produce more sugars during the colder months (some, not all, of course) — hence why cold snaps make for better Brussells Sprouts, leafy greens, etc.

  8. Brenda — Love that bacon ruse! And smoked paprika is a good call on collards, too.

    Jen — I have made a commitment to myself to never buy a livestock breed with ‘Mountain’ in its name. You’ve convinced me.

    There’s probably something to your theory about taste and survival. It’s an age-old tradeoff (and it’s why cultivated varieties taste better than wild things, but are harder to grow). I may have to talk to an actual, genuine scientist to investigate this.

    My condolences for your Arctic King. I feel your pain.

  9. I can’t argue with the bacon suggestion, nor with feeding them to the chickens. However, I do believe that food science comes down on the side of long cooking times for bitter brassicas. I’m speaking from what I’ve read (America’s Test Kitchen and Harold McGee) rather than experience here, because I like my vegetables and especially my brassicas lightly cooked. Therefore I stay away from bitter brassicas. But apparently the bitter compounds are broken down by a long cooking process. Alice Waters has a recipe for broccoli that calls for steaming it for 45 (!) minutes. Now, I don’t find broccoli particularly bitter, so that’s nothing but overkill to my mind. But…it’s Alice Waters. How far wrong could she be? ATK confirmed the utility of overcooking (about half of the total) broccoli when they developed their broccoli-cheddar soup. Then there’s the southern tradition of cooking the hell out of collards, with – yes – smoked/cured pork products. How far wrong could they be?

  10. Ok, this is really out there, but in the latest Cook’s Illustrated they discussed using plastic wrap to tone down overly tannic wine (placing a crumpled piece of plastic wrap in the wine toned down the tannins, but also removed other flavors leaving the wine palatable but bland). I know the compounds are completely different, but I think it is worth a try with bitter greens. I don’t have any bitter greens at the moment, but when I have some I think I will try chopping them, soaking them with a little salt and some plastic wrap, and then cooking as usual. What can it hurt?

  11. Vanessa — Feeding them to chickens is a last resort, but defnitely a resort.

    Kate — Long cooking is on my list. One of the ways I like to do collards is in a clay pot with a chicken. Put a mess of chopped collards in the bottom, put the chicken on top, surrounded by root vegetables. An hour and a half later, you’ve got three distinct dishes. I’ll give that a shot with ours and see how we do.

    Laura — I love Cooks! What a weird idea. But, hell, stranger things have happened. If you try that little experiment before I get to it, let me know how it goes. And thanks for the most offbeat suggestion of the post.

  12. Weighing in a little late here but…I’ve been experimenting with cooking tough greens in the pressure cooker. With just a splash of water and only till it starts rocking. Sure I’m probably blasting off all the nutrients, but it works, at least for kale, which I haven’t found much use for till now.

  13. Dan Marquart says:

    The bitter is the nutrition! They’ve got psoralens, which inactivate infectious pathogens.

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